Bassem Youssef, a heart surgeon who became a wildly popular political satirist following the 2011 revolt that felled the durable autocratic regime of Hosni Mubarak, announced on Monday that his show would not be returning to the airwaves following months of uncertainty.
While the announcement stunned his fans, it did not come as a surprise: the program, called El Bernameg (The Program in Arabic), had been the target of state ire for its irreverent treatment of Egypt’s political figures.
The timing of the cancellation underscored the contracting space for freedom of speech and political criticism in Egypt since the ouster of its first freely elected president by the military in July 2013.
Since then, local and foreign journalists have been jailed while even secular-minded activists critical of the military have been targeted by authorities. The Muslim Brotherhood and their supporters have been outlawed while a severe crackdown has seen thousands killed and tens of thousands more imprisoned.
Mr. Youssef, who also gained popularity in the West while cultivating his image as Egypt’s Jon Stewart, said on Monday the program will not return due to pressures outside of his control. He thanked the Saudi-owned MBC Masr, a satellite channel that broadcast the show after it had been cancelled on a domestic satellite channel in November, for their efforts but declined to say exactly what lead to the decision to the pull the plug.
“They have tried as much they could, but unfortunately the circumstances and the pressures were bigger than any of us,” he said, referring to MBC Masr’s efforts to keep the show on the air.
“The Program in its current format will not be able to continue, neither on MBC nor any other Egyptian or Arabic channel,” he added.
Mr. Youssef declined to say in detail what he meant by “pressures” but repeatedly suggested that Egypt’s military backed government would not tolerate his brand of political humor. “The Program doesn’t have a space,” he said. “It’s not allowed.”
Long a target of successive regimes, including that of the Muslim Brotherhood linked Mohammed Morsi, who was ousted by the military last year; Mr. Youssef said he was no longer willing to risk his personal safety and that of his staff to continue the show. “I’m tired of struggling and fearing for my personal and my family’s safety and that of the people around me,” he said.
He suggested the show could not continue to be credible if the message – consistent and scathing jabs at authorities and the statist media – was watered down.
Mr. Youssef began his brand of comedy on YouTube during the 2011 uprising but quickly shot to fame when he scored a TV contract on Egyptian satellite channel ONTV. He later moved to CBC, another private Egyptian channel, before he was dismissed in November after taking jabs at the supporters of Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, the former military chief who ousted Mr. Morsi and was last week elected president in a lopsided poll.
The Saudi owned MBC Masr picked up the show but it didn’t last long. He was forced to take a hiatus last month by authorities who said his show could be seen as influencing voters during the presidential election period. It was scheduled to return on Friday before Mr. Youssef’s abrupt announcement on Monday.
Mr. Youssef said he could not continue the show on YouTube because ad revenue could not support the budget of the program and declined what he said were several offers to take it overseas. “The Program belongs in Egypt,” he said on Monday, speaking from the elaborate studio in Downtown Cairo and surrounded by staff and supporters.
Mr. Youssef, who saved his most pointed criticism for the Muslim Brotherhood and cheered the protests that eventually lead to their downfall, had made enemies on the many sides of Egypt’s divides. He was loathed by Islamists and later by supporters of Mr. Sisi. He even earned the ire of liberals who saw his support of the protests that lead to Mr. Morsi’s ouster as selling out on democracy.
Mr. Youssef dug in his heels, saying the Muslim Brotherhood didn’t have the power to shut him down and were not given enough time to do so.
When challenged by a journalist on Monday, who suggested that Mr. Youssef had “given up” and cancelling the show would be “unbecoming of a revolutionary,” Mr. Youssef bristled.
“I wish to do my job but I can’t,” he said. “You want me to stand here and chant slogans on stage?”
Instead, he said, cancelling the show is a signal of strength “not a message of fear.”
His somber statement on Monday was peppered with humor, bringing his supporters to standing ovations and, at times, tears. Close to the end of his press conference, Mr. Youssef couldn’t resist a final dig. “We are living in the most prosperous of democratic eras,” he quipped. “And anyone who says otherwise: cut off his tongue.”
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(via WSJ Blogs)